Authors: Carmen Faye
One of the guys shrugged. “Your fault if you fuck with Jerrill,” he said. “It could have been worse.”
was Jerrill. Me and my big mouth. First night in town and I’d already attracted attention from the one man whom I didn’t need to know about me. Nicely played, Peterson. Nicely played.
Standing outside the casino like a criminal, with the bouncers ignoring me as if sympathy was fresh out of stock, sucked. On my first night in town, I’d managed to piss off Antonio Jerrill—a big deal around here, apparently—and get kicked out of the casino, losing all my winnings. And my name had been floating around the place because I’d told Ted whom I really was. Who else had heard me? Who else would find out?
I doubted Ted was a rat with ulterior motives, but I should have given him another name. Ben, like I’d used at the hotel. I’ve been so many different people the past while though, that it felt nice just to be myself for once. Besides, Rip really was a badass name as Ted had pointed out. Pride and all that.
I felt like such an idiot. As someone who did this often, I should have known better. Casinos were shark infested, and you had to watch your mouth. I usually did. But Jerrill had the kind of face that had looked like he’d thought the world of himself and that kind of attitude always got me riled up. Some people were just begging for their teeth to be punched in. Although that would have ended worse for me.
Good thing I’d just been running my mouth and nothing else.
I should just have found out whom I was saying it to. Besides, hadn’t Ted warned me? What was the point of finding allies and contacts if I did nothing with the information?
Yes, an absolute idiot. And now I needed a new game plan, because carrying on this way was only going to get me killed. That was the end point for someone like me. If I fucked up, it was a bullet in my brain. None of these guys—the Stone Cold Club, or the Crucifix Six, or any other Corny Name Club—were going to make things work out for me so that I could go home with a busted kneecap or something. Dead was on the cards, and when that was the case, I preferred to fold.
I found my box of cigarettes and pinched one between my lips, pulling it out. I lit up and inhaled deeply, pulling the smoke into my lungs, relishing and hating the burning sensation all at the same time. I’d been smoking since I was a teenager, and I still didn’t like it, but what was I going to do? Addiction was a bitch, and there were worse things to be addicted to.
I exhaled a cloud of smoke in front of my face and jammed one fist into my jacket pocket, feeling my lighter press against my knuckles.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” a voice asked behind me. It was a woman’s voice. In all the time Stone Cold had been hunting me, they’d never sent a woman, so there was no fear, just curiosity. None of the girls I’d slept with would be around these parts. I’d left a trail of women as far as Minnesota, but this was very far south. I turned around slowly, cigarette pinched between my lips, and looked down at her.
It was the woman I’d seen earlier. Alexandra.
She stood in front of me, her dark hair making her dark eyes stand out, and that red of her shirt made her look fierce. And she was furious. Her eyes spat fire, and she had her hands by her side, fists clenched into balls, and she leaned forward a little, like she wanted to attack but she was holding herself back.
“You owe me money.” Her voice was hard and melodious, all at the same time.
“What?” This was a new one. I’d seen her once, didn’t know her at all, and she was already making demands.
“Don’t be a jerk,” she said.
“I wasn’t aware I was one.”
“Your little stunt, getting kicked out, is going to ruin your rep.”
I chuckled, took the cigarette from between my lips with two fingers, and tapped it to get rid of the ash. “Nice of you to worry about my rep.”
“I don’t give a shit about yours. But you ruined mine, too. When you start taking down innocents, you need to rethink your strategy.”
I dragged on my cigarette again, nodding as I did. The word ‘innocent’ was amusing. It didn’t really fit the look she was sporting.
“Right,” I said, smoke billowing out as I spoke. “So how much did you lose?”
“Fifty large,” she said. I fought hard to keep my face neutral. She’d been sitting on fifty grand?
“If you can’t hold onto your cash when there’s drama, you shouldn’t be playing with the big boys.” I didn’t sound as surprised as I felt. Point for me.
“I lost my count, asshole,” she sneered. “If everyone’s being civil, I’m fine and dandy, but if a caveman like you waltzes in, they really ought to bar you at the entrance. There will always be casualties with men like you.”
Her mouth was mesmerizing. She was giving me a tongue-lashing in a big way, and all I could do was stare at her lips, full and pouted, meeting at a cupid’s bow below her nose in a way that made me want to taste her. I forced my eyes back to hers.
“Did you just call me a caveman?” I asked. She rolled her eyes and looked toward the casino. Maybe she was waiting for someone. Maybe it was longing for all that cash in there. Maybe she thought about calling over one of those bouncers. It gave me a chance to look at her. I let my eyes slide down her body. Perfect proportions. Voluptuous. And that attitude to boot. I was willing to bet all the money in my black duffel that she used her looks to her advantage.
I could use someone like her, and not just as a lady to get horizontal with. She had balls bigger than mine, sassing a stranger like that, and she had a quick mind and a quicker tongue.
“So you’re a counter, huh?” I asked. Her face sobered, eyes widening just a little. I’d hit home. Her hands finally unclenched and hung loosely by her sides. The anger had drained out of her body.
“What’s it to you, asshole?” she asked. Man, I loved it when she called me names. I could just imagine getting so much dirtier behind closed doors.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. I dropped the cigarette butt and ground it out with my heel.
She leaned back, shifting her weight to one leg and crossing her arms over her chest. Her face had a chances-are-slim look on it, but she jutted her chin up in a half nod, ready to hear me out.
“Let’s—you and me—work together. You do your thing, I’ll do mine, and we’ll split the winnings. When you have your fifty back, you can split and we’ll go our separate ways, no strings attached.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“You want me to share my winnings with you until I make the fifty? What if I make it all by myself, and then I get there twice as fast?”
“But it will take you longer to get there. Come on, working together always turns out better. Besides, you have talent that will work with mine, and I have goals. Together, we can make it work.”
“Talent,” she said. Her tone suggested she didn’t believe me. She was grating me. I liked it.
“So you’re a hustler,” she said. Statement, not a question. I looked over her shoulder, irritated.
“You know, I’ve always resented that term. Hustling is for kids. What I do is the real deal.”
“Right. I saw you real-dealing it in there.” She nodded toward the casino. Not my finest moment. If she could drop it, that would have been awesome.
“Come on, Alexandra,” I said, not responding to her taunt.
She narrowed her eyes at me.
“Who’s dropping my name?” she asked.
“Who says someone was talking about you? Who says I don’t just have my own contacts?”
She shook her hair so it slipped over her shoulders. The stuff was thick and glossy, and it looked like it would feel like silk.
“If you had your own contacts, you would know that I go by Alex, not Alexandra.”
I smiled. She had me there.
“Alright, Alex,” I said. “I’m talking money. Just come out to dinner with me, and I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”
Again the eyes narrowed. Why had I just done that? But it was out there now, and I had to admit to myself that I wanted her to say yes, even though I wasn’t sure why I’d asked in the first place.
“And you think this is going to work for me, being in a team with someone?”
She worked alone. That made sense. I knew what it felt like, refusing to team up. But sometimes it was just better with two.
“It’s just business. No pleasure, no funny business.”
“So you say, but you just asked me out to dinner.”
She had me again. I sighed, scrambling to find more answers. She was keeping me on my toes. I loved it. I hated it. She spoke before I found something else to say.
“Tomorrow night, Cisco’s. I’ll be there at eight.”
She turned quick enough that her hair spread out around her, and then she marched back inside. I couldn’t follow her. I didn’t need to. The view of her ass swinging from side to side as she walked was a reward in its own right. And I was going to have dinner with her.
I pushed my hands into my pockets and watched her until she disappeared through the doors. She didn’t nod at the security guys. They didn’t acknowledge her. Low profile. I liked that.
And assertive, too. She told me where and when—even though I’d been the one to issue the invitation. Working with her might just work out.
I had to admit she had damn good taste. Cisco’s was a classy joint, the kind of place that anyone could go to; the food and drink wasn’t too expensive, and when they were in there, they felt like a million bucks.
I arrived a bit early because I liked to think that I could be a gentleman if I really wanted to. I got a table in the back, and I watched the people coming in, sitting down, laughing, drinking, and eating. It was comfortable. It was warm and fuzzy.
I hated it. I wanted to run a mile. This was the kind of place that reminded me of Emmett and the attitude he’d had toward the world. Since I’d lost him, I tried to avoid everything that was warm and fuzzy and full of life.
Cisco’s was all that.
The décor was a bright green with dark wood and gray finishes instead of cream. It gave the place a modern, fresh look, not the drab every day kind of feel that most restaurants sported.
At eight on the dot, she walked in. She wore a stunning version of the little black dress, with capped sleeves and a plunging neckline that showed off the swells of her breasts. The dress was short, too. Just halfway down her thigh, and it accentuated her curves perfectly.
Her hair was in a loose ponytail, emphasizing her sharp features.
“You’re early,” she said in the same tone I imagined she would have used if it was late.
“I wanted to make sure we got a table. Place looks busy.”
She nodded, glancing around. The waitress noticed the addition to my table and brought two menus. She smiled at us.
“Give us a minute,” I said, and her face fell. She turned and walked away. I glanced at Alex over my menu. Her eyes moved as she read over the options. She seemed guarded, cautious. I didn’t blame her. She didn’t know me at all. I was hoping we could change that. If there was one thing we needed for this to work, it was trust.
“So, you want to tell me what this is all about?” she asked, not looking up at me.
“I thought we could order something first, wind down, and get used to each other.”
She looked up at me with a poker face. I couldn’t read what she was thinking or feeling at all, and I liked to think that I could read people well enough. Man, she was good. If we could pull this off…
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll have white wine…and the chicken.”
Quick decisions. No waffling. She had so many pluses. I nodded and lifted my hand to flag a waitress. She was at our table a minute later, taking our orders. I ordered Alex what she wanted, chose the same main course, and asked for a beer instead of wine. When the waitress left, Alex looked at me.
“I hope you’re not eating the same meal as me to suck up to me,” she said. I wasn’t sure why I’d chosen the chicken. The steak had looked better. I shrugged.
“I hope you’re not questioning my choices like you’re in charge.”
She leaned back in her seat, hands in her lap under the table. I was nervous when a man did that, leaving space for a gun to aim at my balls, but I trusted that she was clean and she came here because she genuinely wanted to know what I had to say. I was hoping that I could go by my gut on this one.
“So, you’re telling me
in charge?” she asked. The conversation was still a power play, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and I got the idea that it wasn’t so hostile anymore.
“I have all the ideas. You haven’t even heard what I have to say yet,” I said.
She nodded. “You’re right. Because we can’t discuss our plans to rule the world on an empty stomach.”
I laughed out loud. She had a great mix of sarcasm and dry humor, paired with a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude that made me think it was right to choose her for this. I was right to let down my guard a little and finally find a partner again.
“What do you want to do?” she asked. “Or are you only going to discuss this over dessert?”
I leaned forward, elbows on the table.
“Tell me what you know about the Crucifix Six.”
She looked at me for a moment without saying anything. I imagined she was going through her options, deciding how much to trust me and how much to tell me.
“You’re thinking of joining them, aren’t you?” she asked.
How did she know?
She shook her head before I could answer. “It’s a bad idea. If you get on their bad side—and by the looks of things you have a knack for getting on people’s bad side—they’re just going to kill you.”
I smiled. “You think I have a knack for trouble?”
“You’re composed of trouble,” she said. It was a compliment. I took it as one because I liked it that way.
“I don’t know who you are yet,” she said. She still hadn’t changed her seating position. She was still distant, closed off, unsure.
“Well, that’s just going to take time, honey.”
“Don’t call me honey. And I mean, I don’t even know your name, but you know who I am.”
I pushed my hand into my hair. Right. Names. Was I going to tell her the truth? Take another risk? Or was I going to hide behind another alias so that when things did blow up in my face I was safe?
“Peterson,” I said.
“And your first name? I can’t work on a surname only basis.”
“How do you know that’s not my name?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. In the light, she looked a lot more venomous than she had last night in the dark outside the casino.
“Let’s not play this game,” she said. “You want someone who can count, you better make sure that I can count on you.”
The wordplay was cute.
“Fine. I’m Rip.”
“You must have had a hard time at school about that one,” she said.
“You believe my name is Rip? You think that Peterson isn’t true, but Rip works for you?”
She shrugged. “I can read people. Besides, that name is too pathetic to be made up.”
I wanted to get offended. No one made fun of my name and got away with it. But her eyes sparkled, and she was leaning forward now, elbows on the desk, mirroring me. A smiled curled around her mouth, and I could see further down her top. I wasn’t going to get mad.
The drinks arrived, and Alex took a sip of her wine. I sucked on my beer.
“Right. The Crucifix Six,” she said, and I knew that I was in. She trusted me now. I wasn’t sure why, but that didn’t matter.
“They’re all family. Two brothers, three cousins, and a guy married into the family. They have all the casinos around here by the balls, and they own a couple of pubs around town, too. Rumor has it they’re in charge of drug sales, too, but that’s just a rumor. No one knows if it’s true, and no one has been able to ask and survive to talk about it.”
I chuckled. “Sounds a lot like a local legend.”
Alex pinned me with a hard stare.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You know Jerrill now, judging by your swift exit last night. You have to stay clear of him, and not just because he knows you now. He’s trouble, and he doesn’t think twice before taking someone out. And he’ll take everything you have before that happens. He doesn’t like to have tales on stories, either, so if he kills you, he’ll kill your family, too. Everyone that might know something.”
“Good thing I don’t have a family,” I said.
She paused just a moment before moving on.
“If you want to get in with the Six, you need to offer them something in return for their loyalty to you. Nothing around here is free, especially not them. What are you going to bring to the table?”
She took another sip of wine. I watched her lips on the wine glass.
“Money,” I said. “Who can say ‘no’ to money?
“And where are you going to get this money?”
“From our winnings,” I said.
She crossed her arms over chest, not mirroring me anymore, and sat up straight in her chair, not touching the table or the back of the chair.
“Right, so you want me to win money with you so that I can get back my fifty, but then you want to give it all away? That doesn’t sound like a plan to me.”
“We can win more. I know we can. I just need to buy their loyalty.”
“It’s not loyalty if you’re buying it. That defeats the purpose.
I rubbed my eyes with a thumb and forefinger, feeling the start of a headache. I hadn’t slept enough.
“I’ll get in with them, and we’ll get games that pay out a lot more than if we just played the field. You’re going to be doing your own thing, so we’ll be doubling up. Even with their cut, we’ll get more than enough. Two is better than one.”
She looked at me, that poker face in place. I didn’t know what she was thinking, which way she was leaning on this one. The plan sounded like something that could work, though. I really needed her on-board with this.
“So, you’re going to make sure I get my money?”
“With interest,” I promised. “And a lot of it.”
I had her there. Her mask slipped, and I could see her greed underneath it all. She wanted the money. She wanted the challenge. She wanted the thrill. She was just like me in a lot of ways.
“Fine,” she said.
The food arrived and neither her chicken nor mine looked very appetizing. I cut a square, speared it with a fork and put it in my mouth.
“Where do we start?”
“I want to go to one of those pubs you mentioned, see who I can get in with.”
She nodded, also chewing.
“That will be better than going to a casino,” she said, agreeing. “How do I know you’re not going to scam me out of my cut?”
That was a good question. What kind of surety could I give her? I shook my head.
“You don’t. You’re just going to have to trust me.”
She looked me up and down.
“Trust you?” she asked sarcastically, but then she smiled.
A pang shot through me, and I felt like throwing up all the chicken I’d managed to get down as a serious case of déjà vu hit me. This conversation about trusting me was exactly the same as I’d had with Emmett before we’d started. And he’d asked me that the same way…
Oh God, what was I doing, getting involved with someone again? But it was just business, no pleasure. I wasn’t going to be friends with Alex. This was about the money, and that was where it was going to stay.